Be An Outsider: A Look at L.L. Bean
Be An Outsider: A Look at L.L. Bean
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date May 01, 2018
It’s hard to remember a time when L.L. Bean was “cool.” Yet, the brand has outlasted many hipper brands over the decades and continues to thrive today. Part of the reason the brand is terminally normal is that L.L. Bean has never really fallen out of favor, and as such, has never had the opportunity for a thrift store rediscovery. The brand’s careful combination of iconic items, consistent, subliminal (but still hyper-aggressive) advertising and a reputation for dependability have kept L.L. Bean in the closets of average Americans since the company’s inception.
While it is interesting to look at the rise, fall and reemergence of more flashy brands, there is also something instructive in looking at how L.L. Bean has maintained its iconic status for more than a century. As you track L.L. Bean’s history, you see that the brand is just as important as the product and the two develop in tandem. If the brand and product grow to a certain level, a company can enter American mythology. That’s just what L.L. Bean has been able to do.
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L.L. Bean was never about fashion. Even from its inception, the company sold pragmatic solutions. Leon Leonwood Bean created what he called Maine Hunting Boots because the land he liked to hunt moose on was so marshy that he would return with soaking wet feet. Today, we call the boots—with a leather upper and rubber bottom—duck boots. They remain one of L.L. Bean’s best selling items.
No sooner did he finish his prototype than Bean began sending mailers out to sportsmen in Maine. This involved the first of many strokes of marketing genius: Bean secured the names of every man in Maine with a hunting license. Out of the first 100 pairs he sold, 90 of them didn’t hold up. Bean replaced all 90 with better shoes free of charge, earning himself close to 90 repeat customers. It’s a move that reflected (until very recently) the brand’s legendary return and replacement policy. So began L.L. Bean’s dual focus of clothing and commerce, and the beginning of the myth of L.L. Bean.
Bean had a knack for creating items that became iconic. This has remained a strange and consistent hallmark for such a particularly “unfashion” brand. 1924 saw the release of its iconic canvas field coat, originally marketed as a “Maine Duck Coat” to accompany the boots. In the late ’20s, the Chamois shirt—L.L. Bean’s signature shirt—was rolled out. In 1934, the company would release the leather duffle bag that would become standard issue for collegiate and young adult travelers across America. In 1944, L.L. Bean produced an “ice bag” which later became known as a “tote,” and launched an enduring item into the wider American wardrobe. These items all remain iconic symbols of L.L. Bean to this day.
Developing a handful of iconic products has been the L.L Bean playbook, and it’s something that still defines the company. Company policy has been to trim inventory when sales lag, and though the company carries thousands of items, they continually feature its core products regardless. It turns out, this is how you turn a brand into a part of American mythology. Look no further than the 2016 Popular Mechanics article, “The Neverending Greatness of L.L. Bean’s Boots”, offering the subhead: “L.L. Bean has been making its iconic duck boot in Maine for more than a hundred years. Your grandfather probably had a pair. You might too. And while every boot has the same origin, no boot has the same story.”
In a way, this approach is antithetical to what we think of as fashion. Rather than shifting with evolving trends, L.L. Bean creates staple products that the average consumer is “supposed” to have. But that doesn’t just happen. To create a brand like that, you not only have spend tons of money on advertising, but you also have to have a different advertising approach. You have to write your own headlines.
As the company grew, so too did the advertising approach. At first, what would become the iconic L.L. Bean magazine was little more than a four-page flier, but it quickly grew into the 50 page guide that not only showcased products, but featured photographs and copy that reinforced the company’s branding. Even in the early editions of the magazine, product descriptions would go on for hundreds of words of flowery prose.
During this period, L.L. Bean’s informal promise to his first customers developed into an ironclad lifetime money back guarantee that would stand for over a century. The combination of the magazine and the guarantee created unprecedented brand loyalty. Easily weathering the Depression and World War II, the brand only seemed to grow.
The later half of the 20th century offered more iconic merchandise from Bean. In 1965 L.L. Bean released its Norwegian Sweater, meant to mimic the sustained warmth in garments worn by Norwegian fishermen. In the ’80s, L.L. Bean would develop its simple, now-stapleversions of fleeces and vests which would prove massively popular. By The New York Times’ count, the company sold 170 different fleece items in its catalogues.
In the ’80s,, L.L. Bean would stumble unexpectedly into the emerging student backpack market. Throughout the decade children and teenagers started wearing bookbags to school in larger numbers. In 1982, Bean started producing a simple “book pack” in three colors with the all-important initials on them. In 1992 alone, the brand sold 12 million of them. These bookbags were must-have items at middle schools and high schools across the country, introducing a new generation to the historic company. Looking at the growth through the 20th century, you start to wonder if the iconic products build the brand or the strength of the brand allowed L.L. Bean to create iconic products.
Advertising growth continued apace as well. It wasn’t until 1987 that the iconic “Sunrise Over Katahdin” logo was launched. Similar to Patagonia’s Fitz Roy logo, the rectangular landscape drawing of a Maine State Park has become synonymous with the L.L. Bean brand. The ’80s also represented the prime of the catalog business, as dozens of companies attempted to mimic L.L. Bean’s longstanding mail-order marketing catalogue approach. In 1985, L.L. Bean was publishing 20 different catalogs a year, including four large seasonal books running over 120 pages. At the height of its magazine business, the company was mailing 200 million catalogues a year. During this period L.L. Bean posted unheard of 20 percent growth per year for three decades. Remarkably, 60 percent of the sales were still coming from the catalogue in the year 2000.
Though L.L. Bean has enjoyed consistent success over the years, the brand has had some moments of unexpected trendiness. Once such moment came in 2011 when its trademark Duck Boots became so popular that there were shortages across the country. Some companies use these boom moments to branch into the designer world or collaborate with younger brands. L.L. Bean, however, opts to keep on keeping on. In fact, shortages of duck boots occur during periods of high demand because the company refuses to ramp up production in a way that would force production outside the United States. This is also because they’ve learned lessons over its history. The company enjoyed a similar boom in 1980, when The Official Preppy Handbook by Lisa Birnbach was published and the bestseller identified L.L. Bean as an essential component of yuppie style. But, by 1983, sales had stagnated.
L.L. Bean has been ubiquitous in American life for most of its existence, so these moments of popularity haven’t let to counter culture popularity. The L.L. Bean duck boot has never had a moment like Dr. Martens or Chuck Taylors. It’s hard to think of a pop culture reference for L.L. Bean outside of the odd fact that Hunter S. Thompson liked to wear its shorts. If anything, L.L. Bean has been a stand-in for normalcy in the cultural consciousness. In Season 2 of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt the title character is referred to as “a model for L.L. Bean performance fleeces.” In fact, not since the days of Ernest Hemingway and Admiral McMillan have its products been anything but standard issue Americana.
Though the brand has maintained its presence front and center in the culture, L.L. Bean has had to continue innovative its advertising to maintain its envied place in the American consciousness. As magazine circulation declined, the company has had to employ other strategies, including manufacturing a giant, size 451 boot placed outside the Freeport, Maine flagship store and building a “Bootmobile.” Bean has put a lot of energy into its flagship store: The Freeport location features a stocked aquarium with trout weighing almost 10 pounds and has stayed open all day, every day since 1951, only closing for L.L.’s funeral. The company has also invested millions of dollars in reimagining its legendary advertising for a digital age. Early on, they simply posted a .pdf of its print magazine on its website, but soon learned that catalogs are not the future. In 2011, L.L. Bean launched mobile commerce and have since pushed hard to catch up with its online sales.
L.L. Bean’s merchandising in the 21st century has also been marked by what it hasn’t done. Many other heritage brands have collaborated with up and coming designers or streetwear brands in a bid to stay relevant. If you google any heritage brand “x Supreme” you’re likely to get a number of results. But L.L. Bean, nodding to its more mainstream audience, has resisted these sort of moves. Other than the launch of an in-house “Signature Collection” in 2009 by Alex Carlton (which is still in production today](https://www.llbean.com/llb/shop/20?page=mens-signature-collection&csp=f&bc=12-26-597&sort_field=Relevance&start=1&viewCount=48&nav=sc-26)) and rare collaborations with other storied New England outfitters, the story at Bean has been business as usual. A brief survey of its Signature Collection will show you that—while the items are slimmed-down and modernized for 21st century tastes, the items aren’t exactly a radical departure from standard L.L. Bean fare. Though the company still releases new products, they do so with a pragmatic eye towards the core customers.
It will be interesting to monitor L.L. Bean’s future, as they have just knocked out one of the pillars of its business.The brand’s ironclad return policy, which had stood since the founding of the company ended this year. In February, what had stood for over a century as a “lifetime replacement” has been reduced to one year with proof of purchase.
Even still—and perhaps more importantly—the core values of the company remain intact. As long as its popular items remain iconic, or even essential, in the eyes of millions of Americans, Bean should remain successful. As far as becoming a fashion leader or trend driver? Well, with the same mantra the company promotes to its fans on social media, we’d expect that L.L. Bean will always “Be An Outsider.”